By Sarah Pridgeon
We Brits ruled the waves for hundreds of years, sailing to lands unknown and contracting scurvy for the sake of exotic spice. It’s said that no British resident lives more than 150 miles from the ocean; I, myself, hail from Poole, the 1000-year-old port that played host to many of the Normandy landing forces.
Because of all this, a surprising number of phrases are steeped in historic seawater and it occurred to me that I’ve heard a fair few of them used around these parts. Who knew that the ocean waves could sweep this far inland?
If, for example, you’ve ever described your spring-cleaned living room as “ship-shape,” you’ve used a shortened form of the old saying, “ship-shape and Bristol fashion.” Bristol has been one of England’s most important ports for a thousand years.
Located on the estuary of the River Avon, it also boasts one of the most variable tides in the world. Because the tide could change by up to 30 feet over the course of a single day, ships often found themselves beached and leaning at 45 degrees when it was at its lowest. Consequently, until the Floating Harbor was invented, any ship that used the port needed to be sturdy and well-made and its cargo had to be securely stowed.
If you’ve ever come back from the bar of an evening and described yourself as “three sheets to the wind,” on the other hand, you’re referring to the ropes that are fixed to the lower corners of sails in order to hold them in place. If three of them are left loose to blow about in the wind, the sails will flap and the ship will lurch about – much like a drunken sailor.
Incidentally, there is a scale of sailor-based drunkenness, should you ever wish to give a more accurate account of your beer intake. While “three sheets to the wind” is about the stage at which you’ll be napping on the sidewalk, one sheet (also referred to as “a sheet in the wind’s eye”) is more of a pleasant state of tipsiness.
If you’ve ever told a tardy companion to “shake a leg,” you’ve used the Royal Navy’s traditional order for sailors to put a foot from their hammocks and arise for the day. The full version of the morning call, as documented by Poet Laureate John Masefield (who served as a trainee mariner on the HMS Conway) is the rather less practical, “Heave out, heave out, heave out! Away! Come all you sleepers, hey! Show a leg and put a stocking in it.”
When bad weather rolled in, have you ever “battened down the hatches” in preparation? This, too, was a nautical process by which a sailing ship’s hatches, which were normally open to ventilate the lower decks, would be covered with tarpaulin and edged with wooden strips called battens.
An origin that might surprise you is that of the phrase, “the bitter end,” which has nothing at all to do with a sour taste in one’s mouth. A bitt is actually a post fastened into the deck of a ship to which cables and ropes can be fastened.
When a rope is played out all the way to the end, no more rope is available to be used. For this clarification we may thank Captain Smith, who included it in his helpful 1627 guide to all things seaworthy, Seaman’s Grammar.
If you are of a political persuasion and have heard tell of the “slush funds” used for influence and bribery, you may have assumed the phrase has something to do with partly melted snow. Unfortunately, the truth is much less appetizing.
In the 1700s, boiled meat was considered a perk for the cooks and crew of a sailing ship and the fat or grease created by boiling the meat became known as the “slush.” The slush was carefully skimmed off, stored and sold whenever the ship reached port, eventually becoming known as the slush fund.
It’s difficult to imagine rancid pork fat as a hot commodity, but it seems to have had its uses. If The Army and Navy Chronicle is to be believed, the slush fund was once considered a suitable source of cash to buy reading material for the crew.
“Panic stations” is an idiom with a similarly unexpected origin – this time, one that beautifully illustrates the sneaky nature of the British seafarer. During World War I, the navy made use of Q-ships: heavily armed military vessels that were disguised as rusty cargo ships to entice unsuspecting U-boats to surface.
As soon as they did, the hidden guns of the Q-ship were unveiled and the seemingly peaceful vessel would do its level best to sink the submarine. Understandably, the Germans quickly developed a suspicion of any boat that appeared harmless and decided it was best not to surface until the seas were clear.
“Panic stations” was thus an actual command that was one step up from “action stations” and likely to be called if the ship had taken a hit. It was, unsurprisingly, generally followed by the command to “abandon ship.”
Similarly attributable to ships doing battle, “a shot across the bow” refers to the bit at the front of a boat where it begins to arch inwards towards the prow. In seafaring terms (although it’s not used quite so literally these days), the bow was the acceptable target of a warning shot from the cannons to let your opponent know that you’re prepared to engage in fisticuffs.
Your choices, should a shot be fired across your bow, are to either load up your own cannons in response (and presumably call the crew to shake a leg and get to their panic stations to batten down the hatches while you do) or to raise the white flag in surrender and pay them off with the slush fund. Now you’ve been properly schooled in the ways of the waters, either option ought to be plain sailing, even if you’re three sheets to the wind.